Murder at 1600

on April 18, 1997 by Joseph McBride
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   More cartoonlike, and more entertaining, than Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power," Dwight Little's "Murder at 1600" originally was set to open ahead of that Castle Rock film before Warner Bros. pushed it back, in what could be interpreted as a favor to its resident screen legend. But, with a winning performance by Wesley Snipes as an honest D.C. cop unraveling a White House murder coverup, this Regency production more than holds its own against Eastwood's muted, muddled take on governmental corruption.
   Both plots are filled with more holes than a truckload of Swiss cheese. With absurdity mounting on absurdity, it's impossible to take either film as seriously on a plot level as such classics as "All the President's Men" and "The Manchurian Candidate." But "Murder at 1600" and "Absolute Power" speak volumes as manifestations of the American public's deep-seated mistrust of its government. Overtones abound of Vincent Foster and Clintonian bimbo eruptions, although the beleaguered president (Ronny Cox) in "Murder at 1600" is more reminiscent of Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis.
   With the added metaphorical nuance of centering the story on an African-American cop whose tenacious devotion to duty is all that stands between the Republic and chaos, "Murder at 1600" has a ballsy, up-yours attitude toward entrenched authority that audiences will find refreshing. Still, the movie would have been far more disturbing if all the government honchos weren't such caricatures of evil or ineffectuality. Ludicrously overblown thriller music by Christopher Young works against Little's sharply paced direction.
   Snipes' thoughtful, droll performance is a further indication of his impressive range, but unfortunately he's not allowed even a glimmer of sexual chemistry with white leading lady Diane Lane, playing a Secret Service agent who gradually becomes his ally. As a result, Lane is stuck on one dour-and-haggard note.    Starring Wesley Snipes, Diane Lane, Alan Alda, Daniel Benzali and Ronny Cox. Directed by Dwight Little. Written by Wayne Beach and David Hodgin. Produced by Arnold Kopelson and Arnon Milchan. A Warner Bros. release. Thriller. Rated R for sexuality, violence and some language. Running time: 106 min
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